Better call Willard Scott: Next year is the 100th birthday of the zipper and the submarine. If you were at the beach all summer, you probably slept through the 160th anniversary of the lawn mower as well as the compound microscope's big 4-0-0.
That's okay if you forgot to send a Hallmark. Because more new product ideas come along every day. Right? Don't bet the ranch.
Getting a product out to the public used to be a snap. When, in 1590, Dutch spectacles-maker Zacharias Janssen invented the microscope, he simply presented one to the archduke of Austria. The archduke, in turn, told his other archduke friends what a nifty gadget it was.
Today, you need to manufacture a prototype, hire lawyers, photographers and ad people, get a patent and throw bushels of cash into that bottomless hole called "your very own business."
Only one in 200 new products shows a profit. And that could be after you sink $250,000 into your "great idea."
The big companies are not going to be banging on your door to woo you. They become your enemy, grabbing valuable shelf space, forcing you out of business. They might even steal your idea.
Are the zippers and lawn mowers of tomorrow in jeopardy? Is the average Joe (or Joanne) discouraged from entering the new-products market? How does one get from the great-idea stage to actually seeing the product in a store? How much does it cost? How much time does it take? Can anything bad happen? Does it consume your entire life? Would the people who did it do it again?
Five average people from across America. Five different stories about how they took their great idea to market:
Seat Belts for Dogs Gary Murray, an electronics engineer from Reno, Nev., was riding in his sports car with his girl friend and his 6-year-old terrier, Sweetheart. The car slammed into a tree. Gary and his girl friend were protected by their seat belts. Sweetheart, sitting on the center console, wasn't so lucky and was propelled into the windshield and killed.
So in 1985, Murray started Pet Love Products, a company that sells seat belts for pets as well as straps that keep dogs from jumping out of the backs of pickup trucks. Both cost under $20.
The ideas sound valid. But remember seat belts for people? It took state legislation to finally make them mandatory.
Seat belts for animals are now required by law in a handful of states, including California, Utah and Ohio. Murray was involved in some of the legislation, and his products have been endorsed by the Nevada Humane Society. Still, he's a long way from getting his device into every car.
"I have learned if you have an idea and are an average person who makes car payments each month, it is 99 percent impossible to get your product on the market yourself," says Murray. "I tell people now that marketing a new product is kind of like saying 'There's free gold in the bathroom,' only the bathroom door is closed and no one can hear you."
You can have the best idea in the world, but if you don't market it right, no one ever will know about it.
"Patents are worthless and so are patent lawyers," growls Murray. "A patent on your product only keeps other people from suing you. To stop other people from copying your product, you need a conglomerate of lawyers and all they can do is send 'cease and desist' letters at $1,000 a crack."
A patent costs $250 to file and process, he says, but a patent lawyer can typically charge $5,000 to do it for you.
In the case of pet seat belts, Murray found out the pet accessory business is a tough nut to crack. Especially if you only have one product.
"Hartz Mountain, for instance, buys part of the supermarket aisle to feature its entire line," says Murray. " ... If you're an outsider, you're stuck. Your product gets placed on a lower shelf. And unless it is something so unique -- like a Pet Rock -- people don't see it and people don't buy it."
Among his expenses was $1,000 for a trademark to protect the product name and $1 million in liability insurance, which one needs in case, as Murray puts it, "someone cuts off his finger while using your product."
He also spent $11,000 on a TV spot in Las Vegas, through which he sold one dozen units.
"They showed the ad during 'Scooby Doo' on Saturday morning," he laments.
But for the satisfaction of knowing that perhaps one little terrier will be saved somewhere because of his product, would he do it again? Would he leave his job as an engineer to market seat belts for dogs?
"You mean would I drop a quarter-million dollars and mortgage my mother's house as well as my own? Probably not," Murray says. "But if I did do it again, I would not make some of the same mistakes."
Skid-Free Bath Mat With Built-In Temperature Display
Sandy and Tim Howard of Spruce Pine, N.C., were managing a hotel when they discovered that guests were slipping on the so-called slip-resistant adhesive strips in the hotel's tubs.
Before that, they worked for a company that used an acid wash, etching tub bottoms to make them slip-resistant, but that process encouraged the growth of mildew.
So their idea for a skid-free permanent bath mat was born.
"We were in Florida at the time and started fooling around in an old bait house with plastics, vinyls and adhesives, boiling them on the stove to find the right material that would be slip-resistant and mildew-proof," says Sandy Howard.
They experimented with different materials for 18 months before they succeeded. They recruited a friend as a business partner. Three years later, they secured a patent and set up shop to manufacture their product.
"Our first patent lawyer never filed the papers," says Sandy. "Had we started marketing our bath mat without filing, our product would have become public domain and unpatentable."
They hired a second patent lawyer and Underfoot Industries Inc. was born. Two years ago, however, their business partner split for California.
"Our ex-partner is marketing the product on his own and there is little we can do about it," sighs Sandy.
But they have expanded their marketing efforts to hotel chains with steady success.
"Marketing takes 90 percent of our time and eats 50 percent of our profits," Sandy figures. "We spent $200,000 gearing up for business. That's because we bought equipment to manufacture our product."
In the last nine months, they have implanted a thermometer-like device in their bath mats that tells how hot bath water is. The potential sales to the elderly and people with kids, they say, is great.
"But we have not been aggressively marketing it because of lack of funds," says Sandy.
However, the Howards say they would do it all over again because of the freedom, adventure and personal growth the business has offered.
"I think we were at an advantage going into this knowing nothing," she says. "But don't ask me in the middle of the night when I have the willies."
Walking through the woods in New Hampshire is one of life's joys. But it bugged Phyllis Biron of Goffstown.
"I had it being attacked by bugs every time I went outdoors," says Biron, a real-estate agent.
So she contacted friend and dressmaker Jan Merrill, who whipped up a design for a shirt that covered the head, face and upper torso and hung away from the body, letting in air and keeping out bugs. They call it the Bug Baffler.
Pretty soon, neighbors who got wind of this shirt wanted one.
"At that point, we knew we had something," says Phyllis. They now have a company in Nashua that manufactures the shirts.
Both Biron and Merrill have spent hundreds of hours at the library researching the best materials, calling people in the fabrics industry and selling, selling, selling.
"It's been a wonderful experience," says Biron, who used her inheritance from her father's estate.
"We've been very frugal and have not taken a lot of pay, because of the money we spent on lawyers, the patent and the trademark," reflects Biron. "But I would encourage anyone with an idea to follow through."
Merrill adds, "We both feel that after a year and a half of working hard, it's going to be smooth sailing from now on."
Disposable Baby Bibs
A newcomer in the new-products business is Barbara Hubberman, who owns a recycled designer-clothing shop for children in Newtonville, Mass.
"A year ago a French girl came into my shop with her baby and took some very soft paper bibs out of her purse," says Hubberman. "I got excited because I knew there was nothing like it in the American market."
Bibz for Kidz now is being introduced to baby shops, gift shops and hospital gift shops in the Boston area.
"I called people in the paper industry to find out who might be interested in manufacturing paper bibs," says Hubberman, who tested a variety of papers on a neighbor's 9-month old infant.
The result is a bib that has a soft front and a soak-resistant back. They go for $2.59 for a pack of seven.
"Most people have been helpful in giving suggestions on price structuring, packaging and marketing in general," Hubberman says.
She has spent about $10,000 launching this business. Her attitude is positive, though she is traveling in unfamiliar waters.
The fact that environmentalists are lambasting the disposable-diaper business does not faze her. "I believe in my product and I expect other people will like it, too."
Squeegee for Shower Doors
Three days after Alan Hansen and his wife moved into their new home in Lake Oswego, Ore., in 1986, they decided they had had it with wiping down their glass shower doors.
"We had a pile of wet, mildewed towels," Hansen says. "A friend of a friend suggested using a squeegee from the hardware store. It worked and was easy but it was obnoxious to us to leave this tool of industrial ugliness in the shower, like a toilet plunger next to the toilet."
So, the idea for a nice-looking shower squeegee was born. After two years of playing around with ideas, Hansen hired a design firm to construct what would become an award-winning product.
"It cost me about $10,000 to have it designed and it was money very well spent," Hansen says.
Obviously: In 1989, the squeegee, called Cleret, won the Best Product Design award from the Industrial Design Society of America, the Super Bowl of design awards. Business Week magazine deemed it one of the best products of '89.
"All this was accomplished before we even had a working model," notes Hansen. "We only had the prototype."
But winning the citations gave Hansen's new company, Hanco Inc., credibility in the market.
"When you try to contract vendors to tool parts for your idea and they find out you are the sole proprietor of a small business, they don't return your calls. You don't promise a big sale," Hansen recalls. "But having the awards stirred interest and got things rolling."
After a year on the market, Hanco Inc. has sold 60,000 units at $20 each, breaking the million-dollar mark. The squeegee is featured in many high-end catalogues, such as Hammacher Schlemmer in Chicago and The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
"I hope this isn't sexist," quips Hansen, "but I find that if the catalogue buyer is a woman, she relates to our product more quickly."
Next year, Cleret will be introduced in Japan, Canada and Europe. From those dirty shower doors in Lake Oswego, that's a long way in a short time.
Just Do It
If you want to cut through patent red tape and possibly save thousands of dollars:
"Patent it Yourself" (Nolo Press, $29.95), by patent attorney David Pressman, thoroughly explains the patent process and copyright laws and has all the forms and instructions needed to patent a product in the United States.
"The Inventor's Notebook" (Nolo Press, $19.95), by Pressman and Fred Grissom, is a product diary to keep all information documented and handy to speed up any legal help you might need.
Both books are available at chain bookstores or by calling 1-800-992-6656. It's Time To Invent ... If you are casting about for a new product to invent, take a moment and listen to what people are saying they want:
"I wish someone would invent an automatic dog walker." -- The Rev. Fred Thomas of Baltimore, owner of a new puppy.
"There should be a gadget to remind me that the television show I want to watch is about to go on -- sort of a TV egg timer." -- Betty Levin, a publicist in Boston.
"Coffee that doesn't stain your teeth, newsprint that doesn't stain your hands and when you get a great haircut, a way to make it stop growing." -- the staff at Hill & Knowlton's office in Atlanta.
"Glasses with windshield wipers." -- Mike Nuth of the Honeywell Corp., Linthicum, Md.